Outside the former Confederacy, the massacre in Charleston confirms some people’s worst fears about the American South as a sort of moral Superfund site, with toxic dust still hanging in the air from centuries of slavery, repression and state-sanctioned terrorism. Just take the setting: a city whose harbor took in four of every 10 enslaved black people between 1700 and the founding of the American republic in 1776, and then hosted the attack on Fort Sumter 85 years later. In a state that flies a Confederate battle flag on the Capitol grounds. And a black church. A black church! That most open of sanctuaries, having forgiven so many Southern terrorist attacks before this one.
For Northerners, it can be hard to tell where the white supremacy ends and the Southern “heritage” begins. Dylann Roof wore Rhodesian and apartheid-era South African flags on his jacket, penned a hateful manifesto inspired by the Council of Conservative Citizens, and has an obsession—well-documented in photographs and on the license plate he drove to the church—with the Confederacy.
Let’s not let the North off the hook, though.
I grew up in Maryland, a border state with a history of slavery and lynching, and a state song that still references “the Northern scum.” But as a kid it felt like the North to me. I thought “white supremacy” meant white hoods and a fiery lashing out. I thought it was Southern, and if in the North, confined to rural places. In fact, I just hadn’t learned the difference between Southern racism and Northern racism.
“Personally, I’ve never seen much difference between the South and the North,” comedian Dick Gregory wrote in a 1971 issue of Ebony. “Down South white folks don’t care how close I get as long as I don’t get too big. Up North white folks don’t care how big I get as long as I don’t get too close.”
That’s the famous part of the quote. Gregory goes on to say, “In the South, black folks have been abused by the white man physically. In the North, black folks have been abused by the white power structure mentally. The difference is that in the North the white system is more clever with its abuse.”
The cleverness is the key. Here in Baltimore, some black grassroots activists see white supremacy as more than just The Klan et al. In an essay collection called “The Black Book,” Dayvon Love of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle defines white supremacy as “the social, political and economic domination of people of color by white people.”
That kind of white supremacy is furtive, not fiery. It happens behind desks, not under hoods. It is maintained by bureaucracy, not violent threat. The story of our two Americas, that is to say, is bigger than bigots. It’s also about African-Americans being denied opportunities even when there are no so-called bad guys. Racial inequality is often reinforced by organizational practices and government policies, such as exclusionary zoning, that lack discriminatory intent or at least provide plausible deniability for it. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) calls these practices “facially neutral” [PDF] and offers some redress when they turn out badly for racial groups.
In 2011, fair housing activists filed a complaint with HUD about a provision of Maryland law. They believed it was keeping low-income rental housing out of whiter, wealthier areas and crowding it into poor predominantly black communities. When the state doled out tax credits to developers to create cheaper units, the provision allowed elected officials at the county level to spike applications within their borders. Not surprisingly, comparatively few low-income housing units wound up in the whiter, wealthier parts of the state.
Lawmakers may not have intended to discriminate, but the plaintiffs argued the law had a “disparate impact” [PDF] on communities of color. If not for Dylann Roof, disparate impact might have been the race story dominating this week’s headlines. Disparate impact is at the heart of a major Supreme Court case whose ruling was announced this morning.
In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, the justices took up the question [PDF] of whether complainants can use disparate impact under the Fair Housing Act. Had they said no, it would have been necessary to show something more explicit and difficult to prove, “disparate treatment"—the intent to discriminate. However, they said yes. The most powerful tool for challenging racially disparate housing outcomes stands.
After the massacre in Charleston, talk of things like exclusionary zoning and disparate impact may seem cold, wonky, abstract. We’ve just been confronted with the ultimate in disparate treatment and discriminatory intent: Roof* allegedly cornered congregants of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church inside their sanctuary where he'd prayed with them moments before and, according to his confession, assassinated nine of them.
But the “clever” racism of bureaucracy is a big part of what maintains our separate worlds. With clever racism, you don’t see enforcers of white supremacy like Bull Connor or George Wallace. You don’t see physical violence when people argue over tax credit allocations. It’s pernicious, but it’s not physically brutal.
It’s also effective. America’s urban schools have resegregated, for instance. Sociologist Douglas Massey found in 2015, based on 2010 Census tract data, that one out of three black people in metropolitan areas lives among hypersegregation. (The eight most hypersegregated regions in America, Massey found, are in the North.) When clever racism is working, those on the more privileged side of those lines find no need to become combative. What brutality they are willing to abide—and the brutality is there, as video after video has shown us—is mostly left to the police.
But I wonder: What would happen if the federal government took more aggressive action—using tools like disparate impact—to make American communities racially and economically inclusive? (To date, as described in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s gripping ProPublica series “Living Apart,” HUD has been reticent to wield its power to dismantle the mechanisms upholding that segregation.) Would clever racism prove to be just a placeholder for something more sinister? Northerners find comfort in labeling violence toward African-Americans a Southern thing, but if the structures reinforcing inequality in the North were to fall, would Northern racism once more become physically violent?
It’s happened before, even after Jim Crow. In the 1970s, when busing forced school integration in Boston, the response was physical. The iconic photograph of the time, by Stanley Forman, shows a white anti-busing protester using a flagpole to attack a black man in a suit.
It was not a Confederate flag hanging from that pole. It was an American flag.
It’s been four decades since the violence in Boston. White people’s attitudes [PDF] toward integration have changed, and even the suburbs have integrated some. But America still finds a way to pen in its poor, black citizens. Sociologist Patrick Sharkey recently found that “over 70 percent of African[-] Americans who live in today’s poorest, most racially segregated neighborhoods are from the same families that lived in the ghettos of the 1970s.”
Segregation pays dividends to white Americans in the wealth their homes generate, how they are policed, and many other ways. It did under Jim Crow, and it does in the 21st Century. There are just more clever ways of maintaining that segregation now.
Dylann Roof may represent the worst of white supremacy. But if we let him or his homeland define it, we’re letting the rest of America off the hook.
Lawrence Lanahan is a Baltimore-based print and radio journalist. His public radio series about regional inequality, "The Lines Between Us," earned WYPR-FM a duPont Award from Columbia University. His work about racial inequality has appeared in the New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review and Al Jazeera America, as well as public radio outlets including Marketplace and Weekend America. For more, go to lawrencelanahan.com and follow him on Twitter at @llanahan.
*Post has been updated to reflect error introduced in editing. The surname of the alleged Charleston shooter is "Roof" not "Root."